Bread and Dreams, By Jonatha Ceely, Delacorte Press, 416 pp., $22
America is often described as a melting pot. But what heat and what motion are necessary for this alchemy? How are its component parts softened enough to meld? These are the questions Brookline author Jonatha Ceely asks in ''Bread and Dreams," a sensitive and elegant historical novel that takes on a young Irish woman, a bereaved Roman Jew, and sundry others -- including an escaped slave, a mutilated veteran, and a fine, old Dutch family -- and watches them build a new world in New York in 1848.
Framed as a newly discovered diary, ''Bread and Dreams" uses the language of the period -- sometimes slightly stilted, often lyrical with its personal revelations -- to illuminate these characters and chronicle a time of social upheaval. Where its predecessor, 2004's ''Mina," traced the odyssey of the young protagonist, Mina Pigot, leaving famine in Ireland for a new life in England, ''Bread and Dreams" focuses on more internal journeys. In this sequel, Mina, still an adolescent when she takes ship for America, continues to roam: Although she never quite catches up with her brother, who heads for the gold fields in California soon after her arrival, she does end up riding a packet boat along the new Erie Canal. In transit, she meets Temperance zealots, ponders the wisdom of Utopian communities, and also sees firsthand the tragedies engendered by the Fugitive Slave Act, particularly when she meets a young mother on her way to Canada. But Mina's primary quest is personal: How does one become an American? And what is necessary for this traumatized child, a victim of injustice, starvation, fire, and violence, to grow into a content woman?
Central to Mina's growth is her changing relationship with Mr. Serle, a widowed Roman Jew. In ''Mina," she learned to question and overcome her prejudice against the faith of the older man, a chef in the English kitchen where she found shelter disguised as a boy. As time passed, she accepted his protection and learned from him, gaining the culinary skills that serve her well in the great private houses of New York. In ''Bread and Dreams," their connection becomes more complex. As Mina matures, her feelings change, but religious convictions -- virtually the last remnant of their previous lives -- continue to separate them, as does a beautiful Jewish widow, a cheerful young artist, and a brutal attack that causes Mina to retreat from life.
This relationship, however, is about more than romance. And while ''Bread and Dreams" follows some of the swooning conventions common to historical fiction, it transcends others. Yes, Benjamin Serle is tall, dark, and handsome, but Mina is first and foremost a competent individual, with an intelligent sensibility that accepts life's ambiguity. Ceely lets her reveal herself in her slightly archaic language, and it reads like poetry: ''Like prayer, Nature comforts, but it does not answer questions," she confides to her journal. Although Mina will likely never forget the famine that took most of her family, she has learned to cope admirably: ''Best safety lies in fear," she says, thinking of the preserves she has put up for winter. ''Should we wish to be [free of fear], if fear is the lesson the past has taught us to make us safe?" Embracing change, and learning from it, Mina Pigot becomes a heroine for a New World.